A Shift in Power: Unprecedented Victory at the School Board
“It’s pretty clear that there’s a problem,” said Director Nelson Inz at last Tuesday’s school board meeting, “And it’s really disheartening to hear the things that people are saying about racism and practices taking place in our schools to silence teachers of color that we worked so desperately to get to work for our kids, because we know how important it is that they’re there. It’s crushing, really. I can’t believe I’m hearing it.”
At the Social Justice Education Movement (SJEM), our mission is to empower education workers to organize to fight for social and racial justice in their schools, as well as to fight for their own rights as workers. What we’ve found time and time again is that if we don’t do the second, we can’t do the first. In other words: if teachers can’t defend themselves, they can’t defend their students.
Unlike Director Inz, we were not surprised by the stories educators of color shared publicly at Tuesday’s meeting, about the various ways they were pushed out of their schools in a systematically racist school district. They are consistent with what we have heard, seen and experienced in MPS and beyond: staff who speak up for students, or speak out against administrators in any way, are pushed out of schools. We see this pattern hit staff of color the hardest, in large part because staff of color are often the ones to notice and speak up about practices that harm students. In Minneapolis 66% of students are students of color, and yet our teachers of color only represent 15% of the teaching staff. A recent study shows that having just one black teacher in elementary school can dramatically increase students’ chances of graduating. In a district that claims to know how important it is to have staff that represent students, staff of color who face racism in their schools that goes unchallenged or is directly perpetrated by administrators.
Some of these stories were shared before the school board on Tuesday. We heard from a teacher who got positive performance reviews for two straight years, but was then told she would not be asked back for “poor performance” a month after disagreeing with the principal at a staff meeting. In another instance, a black Special Education Assistant (SEA) was fired for refusing to deny hot lunch to students as a form of punishment. Another black SEA resigned in protest over the way he and his students were being treated–then his former boss made it impossible for him to get another job in the district by calling him “unprofessional” in references. A Hmong social worker at Hmong International Academy was fired for “insubordination” after refusing to comply with administrative orders to unlawfully expedite a special education designation. These are just a few of the stories shared, and they are only a glimpse of what is happening across the district.
The board would like us to think this is a crisis of communication, a problem that results from them not “knowing the full story,” as Director Rebecca Gagnon put it. But do they really want to know? The board tried to block the community from entering the boardroom because of overcrowding; security guards were ordered to push us aside and close the doors. We had to push our way in, only to find ourselves in a room that comfortably fit us. Comfortable except for the heat, which the board repeatedly said was because the room was over capacity. Those of us who stayed after, however, heard the AC go on after the crowd left.
Do they really want to know? Superintendent Ed Graff began the meeting by framing all of the testimony to come as the sad consequence of necessary budget cuts.
“I want to acknowledge that we have a number of individuals coming forward tonight to speak about their personal situation, specifically as it relates to employment decisions and race,” he said “We know that this is a very difficult time for employees who are impacted by the cuts and organizational restructuring that is taking place.”
Not a single one of the educators speaking that night were excessed due to budget cuts, and the board knew that. They read our emails, and promised a meeting with the fired educators, which they canceled the day of. But it’s certainly easier to be sad about budget cuts than racism, or staff fired for advocating for students.
Do they really want to act? The board responded to the testimony with outrage and a promise to look into it later–then prepared to move on. We were ready for this with a fully-written, legally sound motion that we requested the board vote on. A motion to rectify the wrongful firings of educators who spoke that night, as well as prohibiting food punishment in the district. Though the discussion mainly consisted of board members saying that this was not the proper process, that they needed to investigate further, and that this didn’t set a good precedent; they were looking at a room of 200 people on their feet, holding signs in support, who had pushed through guards to be there. They passed the motion unanimously with two abstentions. Seven dedicated educators of color can work with our students again.
Do they really want to act? In the face of the budget deficit, the cuts the board is choosing to make are telling. The Davis Center and central administration, which primarily “oversees” (rather than assists) us, has a $43,000,000/year budget for salaries alone. Yet only a small percentage of the total cuts will come from the Davis Center. Yet massive cuts are coming from programs that our students of color rely on the most, including Check and Connect. They’re also coming from massive pay decreases and work increases for the engineers who make our schools clean and safe, most of whom are people of color. And whose budget remains untouched? School resource officers, who mostly get paid to be on their phones, and often make school a criminalizing and traumatizing place for students of color.
The fact is, we’re being given a tired story: that we just need to give the people in power more time to fully understand the issue and then they will fix it. But the solution is not to rely on the nine people sitting on the school board to understand what is happening in every school – that’s impossible. Our schools are somehow supposed to prepare students to live in a “democracy” while being run as dictatorships, where administrators hold all the power. Our schools are somehow supposed to be able to fight racism when the administrators who run them with unilateral power benefit from avoiding controversy. In the same way it is in the board’s best interest to silence us, it is in the principal’s best interest to silence staff.
The solution is not to be patient with our “leaders.” The solution is for the workers, students, and families in schools to have the power. To shift power from positions that benefit from quieting dissent to people whose first priority is the students and the health and happiness of the school community. The solution is to organize for social and racial justice in our schools, and to protect each other along the way. An SJEM organizer who spoke at the meeting framed the night as a “test” for the board, but the real test was for us: could we build the power to defend each other? All it took was connecting educators across the district who wanted to fight, and an organizing strategy to do so. Now that we see the power we have, it’s time to expand it. It’s time to continue the fight. Time to get organized Will you join us?
Come reflect and celebrate this Thursday, 5-7pm at the Waite House Community room: facebook event here. Or contact us at SJEMiww@gmail.com.